Since the earliest form of sencha was developed in 1738 by Nagatani Soen (永谷宗円), it has become by far the most popular type of Japanese tea, comprising around 60% of Japan’s tea production. Sencha is classically made from unshaded first flush leaves, which are immediately steamed to prevent oxidation, then rolled and dried, with the final rolling giving the tea its distinctive needle-like shape. In this three part series, we’ll take a look at how modern sencha is made, from the field to the factories, and how each step along the way can have its unique impact on the final product’s quality and taste.
Most articles that deal with tea production start after the harvest, but the process begins long before then. Before any tea can be made, the plants must first be grown, nourished, and harvested. In fact, a good deal of the tea’s final flavour is already determined by the raw material, meaning that the quality of the soil, climate, and tea plants are paramount to producing high grade sencha.
These early stages of sencha production are more or less identical to that of matcha, so if you’ve already read our article on matcha cultivation, skip to the section on shading to see where the differences start.
As with a good vineyard, the terroir — the soil, location, and climate — of a tea field plays a huge part in determining the quality and taste of tea grown there. As it is made in practically all tea-growing regions across Japan, sencha displays an enormous variety of flavour, appearance, and aroma. Regional climate, soil, terrain, cultivars, and processing styles all have an impact on the final tea. For example, sencha from the mountainous districts of Kawane and Honyama in Shizuoka are known for their crisp, fresh, sometimes floral taste; sencha from the Kyoto region are typically briefly shaded with weak firing yielding a rounder, more umami-heavy tea; whereas sencha from Yame tend to have a darker, nuttier flavour due to stronger firing.
For centuries it has been known that the best tea comes from fields in relatively cool, high elevation climes, on hills and mountain sides, with fog and well-drained acidic soil. The altitude and lower temperature decrease the need for pesticides, and also slow the plants growth, which increases the nutrient density in the leaves, resulting in better tea. Additionally, the mountain/hill and fog provide natural shade from harsh sunlight.
While these locations produce the best quality tea, they have their drawbacks: the sloped terrain and higher elevation mean they are harder and more expensive to manage and harvest, resulting in a reduced yield.
Conversely, low-lying, flat lands which are less desirable from a quality perspective are much easier to work and harvest mechanically, making them suitable for mass-produced low and medium grade teas.
In Japan, most tea plants are not grown from seeds, but rather propagated by cuttings. These cuttings are genetically identical and come in hundreds of types known as cultivars. Although all true tea comes from the two subspecies of Camellia Sinensis — sinensis and assamica — there are hundreds of different cultivars and hybrid cultivars of these two subspecies. By virtue of being genetically identical, tea plants of the same cultivar have the same taste and growing characteristics.
Today, roughly 97% of tea plants grown in Japan are cultivars, with only 3% being seed grown (zairai - 在来). The most popular cultivar is Yabukita, which makes up 75% of all tea grown in Japan and is the gold standard against which all other cultivars are judged. However, because of its ubiquity, some find its taste boring and uninspiring.
When choosing which cultivar to grow in a tea field, producers take into account aspects such as taste, budding time, yield, and resistance to cold, pests, and disease. For example, Saemidori buds up to a week earlier than Yabukita, meaning it can be put on the market earlier. However, it is less resistant to frost damage meaning it requires a warmer climate or adequate frost prevention measures.
When you look at pictures of tea fields in Japan, you may notice that most of the tea plants have been trimmed and pruned into neat rows of hedges, with a flat or rounded top. These ‘tea hedges’ are the most common way to grow tea in Japan as their even surface makes them suitable for mechanical harvesting, as all of the new shoots will grow an even distance from top of the hedge and can be cut off easily. This style of tailoring and shaping the tea bushes is called une-shitate (畝仕立て - ridged tailoring).
While une-shitate can produce very good teas, the highest quality are grown without this extreme shaping or pruning, meaning that the plants grow more vertically, and are distinct individual bushes, rather than a uniform hedge. This traditional, more natural way of managing tea plants is fittingly called shizen-shitate (自然仕立て - natural tailoring). Because of their naturally uneven shape, these plants must be harvested by hand. They also tend to be picked only once a year and have fewer buds per bush, which means that there are more nutrients packed into each new shoot, producing a better tea.
The shape of the tea bushes also affects which methods can be used to shade them (see below).
An often overlooked aspect of tea quality is the fertilisation of the tea plants, which gives them the necessary nutrients to produce desired flavour and aromatic compounds. While most tea producers use a combination of synthetic and organic fertilisers, strictly organic cultivation is increasing in popularity. Tea plants are generally fertilised year-round, with the most important being the last fertilisation a few weeks before harvest.
Now you might be thinking, “wait, I thought sencha wasn’t shaded, wouldn’t that make it kabusecha or gyokuro?”. And you’d be right to do so, however, different production areas have different rules for what a certain tea can be called. For example, in Kyoto, a tea must be shaded for at least two weeks to be called a kabusecha, meaning that plants shaded for up to 13 days can be sold as sencha. As such, it is not uncommon for sencha plants to be shaded for a few days or even a week prior to harvest, especially in the Kyoto and Kagoshima production regions.
Like with gyokuro or matcha, shading the tea plants from the sun forces them to produce more chloroplasts and chlorophyll to harvest more sunlight, causing the leaves to develop a darker green colour. These extra chloroplasts switch from producing bitter-tasting catechins which typically protect the leaves from excessive sun, and instead make sweet and savoury amino acids such as L-theanine along with aromatic compounds such as benzaldehyde. The effect on briefly shaded sencha, however, is of course not as pronounced as it is on a gyokuro and is mainly used to slightly enhance the green colour and umami flavour of the sencha.
It is important to note that shaded tea is not necessarily better tea, but merely a stylistic choice by the farmers and producers. Traditionally, the gold standard for sencha was a clear yellow liquor colour and a clean, fresh taste with natural umami and subtle astringency. However, with the rise of fukamushicha and general shifts in market and consumer standards and expectations, there has been a push towards greener coloured senchas with stronger umami, more body, and less astringency.
Of the three main shading methods, only two are really used to produce shaded sencha, with Jikakabuse (as seen in the above image) being by far the most common due to its simplicity and low cost. Kanreisha is also seen, but is generally reserved for incredibly high end teas, such as those being exhibited in competitions.
Jikakabuse (直冠せ): Direct Shading, the simplest and cheapest shading method. Black or white synthetic cloth is draped directly over the plants, blocking out around 70% of the sunlight. A second layer can be added to increase the shading to around 95%. Putting the shading material directly on the tea requires that the plants be machine-trimmed to have an even surface.
Kanreisha (寒冷紗): Shelf-style with Synthetic Cloth, the most common shading method. Here, the black fabric is held in a canopy, or shelf, built over the tea bushes. This allows greater air and moisture circulation and also lets the plants grow more freely. Many shelf-shaded teas are grown untrimmed as shizen-shitate (自然仕立て - naturally-tailored) bushes, meaning that the bushes grow naturally and unshaped, which produces higher quality tea, but also makes them unsuitable for machine-harvesting, requiring these teas to be picked by hand.
To learn more about shading, its history, and its science, check out our two-part blog series on this uniquely Japanese practice.
Although all true sencha is ichibancha (一番茶) or the first pick of the year, deciding exactly when to pick the first new spring shoots can have a huge impact on the tea. There are many factors that affect when the tea sprouts or ‘flushes’, including latitude, weather, cultivar, etc. For example, late-budding cultivars such as Okumidori sprout after Yabukita, and tea plants in the south of Japan, such as Kagoshima, are ready to pick in early April, while those further north in Kyōto may not be ready until late April or early May.
Producers must also decide if they want to prioritise quality or yield. Generally speaking, after a certain point, the quality of the new shoots will begin to decline while the yield will continue to increase at about 7-10% each day as the plants grow. Pick earlier and you prioritise quality and sacrifice yield; pick later and you get more tea, but with a reduced quality. Depending on the tea they wish to produce, farmers will take this into consideration. Competition-grade teas are picked at maximum quality as yield is less important, whereas leaves destined for tea bags, bottled teas, and other less demanding destinations would be picked later so that there is more raw material to sell. Most good-quality senchas on the market are picked somewhere in the middle, often just a few days after maximum quality.
Determining the right time to harvest is a matter of skill and experience, with producers relying on the softness and feel of the tea leaves as their best guide. Of course, weather also plays a factor as tea is never picked in the rain.
Traditionally, tea picked on the 88th night of spring (which starts at Lunar New Year), called hachijū-hachiya (八十八夜) was said to be of the highest quality. Around the shincha season, there are many teas sold under this hachijū-hachiya name. In reality, however, there is no fixed date on which it is best to harvest as all of the above factors must be taken into account. Additionally, this date originally applied to the Uji area and thus cannot really be used to judge teas grown elsewhere.
Traditionally, top-quality sencha uses a 1 bud and 2 leaves (一芯二葉 - isshin niyō), or sometimes a 1 bud and 3 leaves (一芯三葉 - isshin sanyō) picking. Mechanical harvest will often pick the 4th or even 5th leaves too. However, this is different from the 1 bud and 4-5 leaves picked during tencha harvest, as the leaves picked for sencha are generally younger and smaller.
While this picking standard can be kept consistent when picking by hand, machine picked teas will have some variance as to where on the stem the blades cut.
There are two main categories of tea harvest method: manual and machine. Each method has its own strengths and drawbacks, along with various sub-styles.
Hand-picking (手摘み - tezumi) is of course the oldest and most traditional method of harvesting tea. Before the 1950s, practically all tea in Japan was hand-picked. Today, however, this is reserved for higher-grade teas as it is very expensive, labour-intensive, and produces a lower yield. A skilled tea picker can harvest 1-3kg of tea per hour, while a single two-person handheld mechanical harvester can pick 200-250kg per hour. Though it is still uncommon, matcha and gyokuro are hand-picked more often than sencha.
Hand picking produces the highest quality for a multitude of reasons: it can be used on shizen-shitate plants; pickers can be more selective about which leaves to pick and can leave out damaged or hard leaves, leaves are kept intact due to gentler picking, and the picking standard can be met exactly.
There are a few hand-picking techniques, but most pickers use orizumi (折り摘み - bending pick) where the stem below the last desired leaf is bent and snapped off without cutting it with the fingernails. Another less popular method is shigoki-zumi (しごき摘み) in which the lower leaves are stripped off and the top leaves and bud are picked off in one pulling motion.
A bridge between hand picking and machine picking were tea shears, which were specialised scissors with an attached bag which boosted productivity tenfold. While they still exist, they are very rarely used.
The vast majority of sencha is picked using one of two styles of harvesting machines: hand held and riding-type.
The first is a two-person handheld picking machine (earlier one person models also exist, but are rarer), which resembles a sort of specialised curved hedge trimmer. Two people will hover the machine over the une-shitate tea bushes and manually adjust the height of the cutting blades to determine the picking standard (one bud and two leaves, three leaves, etc.). Often, a third person will follow the picking duo holding a white cloth bag into which the freshly picked tea leaves are sent by the machine. While it is almost 100 times faster and more efficient than hand-picking, this style of machine picking sacrifices some quality as some leaves will be cut rather than picked whole, and some damaged, old, or otherwise unwanted leaves will be picked too and will have to be sorted out later.
The other type of machine picking are the various riding-style tractor harvesters. These straddle a single row of tea bushes and are driven over them while a similar blade system to the handheld type cuts the leaves. The blade’s height can be adjusted to determine the picking standard, but is generally fixed while picking is in progress. This is the most efficient style of picking, yielding 650-700 kg of tea per hour. However, it has its downsides. Firstly, these tractors cannot handle steep inclines and rough terrain, meaning they are mostly confined to tea farms growing on flat land, which generally produce lower quality tea than mountain fields in the first place. Additionally, the manual control of the handheld harvester gives the farmers more direct control over which leaves get picked, whereas this is not as easy to manage on a riding-style harvester.
After harvest, the fresh leaves go straight to aracha processing, which we will cover in part 2 of this series.